Thanks to world-beating big institutions like the Chicago Symphony and Lyric Opera and innovative smaller outfits like Chicago Opera Theater and the medieval-oriented Newberry Consort, America's third-largest city is considered a classical music capital. But while there are small chamber ensembles such as Ars Antigua and Trio Settecento, there has been no period-instrument orchestra in Chicago since a group called The City Musick shut down in 1991. (The ensemble Music of the Baroque, currently led by Mozart specialist Jane Glover, uses modern instruments, as does Chicago Opera Theater when it stages Baroque works, though the latter does mix in some period continuo.)
Risk-averse types might think that The City Musick's demise means that Chicago just isn't fertile ground for a period band. So why is Baroque Band founder/director Garry Clarke setting up shop there?
"Well, it just feels right," he told PlaybillArts by e-mail earlier this year. "It's a great place with lots of other things going on, but at the same time it isn't as crowded as, say, New York, so it feels like one could get something new noticed. I also think, from my discussions with audiences and prospective collaborator groups, that they are very receptive to the idea ... [The City Musick] was doing exciting things and I think there are a lot of people who would welcome [a period orchestra] back.
Clarke, a Briton who moved to Chicago last year, has training as both musician and administrator. As a violinist, he has played (among others) with The Academy of Ancient Music, The Sixteen, The Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment and Les Arts Florissants. In 2001 in England's West Midlands, he founded the 18th Century Concert Orchestra, an ensemble of 12 musicians who perform by candlelight in period dress. (One of that group's publicity blurbs describes it as "not only a visual and aural spectacle but the best dressed men in stockings in the U.K.") As for administrative expertise, Clarke first came to the U.S. to get some high-powered business training: he was one of the 2004-05 Vilar Fellows at the Kennedy Center's Institute for Arts Management.
While the Baroque Band isn't revealing specific future plans just yet — next season's programming is being unveiled at this week's concerts — he did mention one project: an annual Messiah — though probably not in December, as is presently the practice throughout the English-speaking world. "We'll do a small version with only about 16 singers and we aim to align it with a charitable organization such as an orphanage or [a foundation for] the homeless. Messiah was, of course, used a good deal in Handel's time for this very purpose."
More generally, Clarke is aiming high. He fully intends to establish a group on the level of Toronto's Tafelmusik and San Francisco's Philharmonia Baroque, the only two full-time period-instrument orchestras in North America. "We will give audiences the chance to hear great Baroque works performed at the same high standards they would expect if they were going to hear the Chicago Symphony Orchestra or the Lyric Opera of Chicago," he says. "At the same time, we hope to attract players, students, and scholars to live in Chicago and develop the city into a thriving, nationally recognized early music hub."
Baroque Band's debut performances are tonight at the Music Institute of Chicago in Evanston, tomorrow at Symphony Center's Grainger Ballroom, and May 24 at St. Thomas the Apostle Church in Hyde Park. Information and tickets are available at www.baroqueband.org.